It’s obvious from bookshelves and movie screens that Heaven is a popular topic of entertainment and conversation. But what does Heaven really look like? What will we do forever? Are near-death experiences useful to our understanding of the biblical description of Heaven? What does the Bible say?
Bible Gateway interviewed John Burke (@J0hnBurke) about his book, Imagine Heaven: Near-Death Experiences, God’s Promises, and the Exhilarating Future that Awaits You (Baker Books, 2015).
Why did you write Imagine Heaven?
John Burke: Heaven is a real place—in fact more real, tangible, and exhilarating than Earth! That’s what the Bible has said all along, but I find most people don’t have a good image of it. We don’t “set our eyes on things above” or live for Heaven, like Colossians 3:1-3 says, when we can’t imagine it. I’ve investigated close to a thousand near-death experiences (NDEs)—accounts of what people experienced when they were clinically dead—and I’ve compared them to an extensive study of the Bible’s view of the afterlife. I was astounded by how NDE reports color in the picture of the afterlife painted in the Bible. Imagining what Scripture says through their eyes makes you feel like you’ve been there. I wrote the book to share the hope and motivation I’ve found from imagining the incredible life to come.
You write that how a person views Heaven changes everything about their life. Explain what you mean.
John Burke: When you can really imagine what God promises in the life to come, it changes how you love others. In the book you’ll read about the Life Review people experience in God’s presence, and how they see the ripple effect of their loving or unloving actions. It changes how you endure suffering because you see how God does work everything for good, and you will read stories showing how he creates beauty out of Earth’s tragedies in Heaven. It changes how you give, sacrifice, and serve because you can see that Heaven is the life to live for; exponentially better than the best retirement you’ve ever imagined!
Why do people tend to have a boring view of Heaven?
John Burke: I have no idea, because evidence shows Heaven is better than anything we’ve imagined on Earth. Both Scripture and NDEs describe beautiful mountains, valleys, rivers, flowers, and forests—not unlike Earth, but experienced in a new dimension; not with five senses, but with what feels like 50 new senses. We’re fully ourselves, yet we’ll feel more alive than we’ve ever dreamed possible—real relationships, real hugs, real communication, and the greatest reunion with loved ones ever imagined. And Jesus is the Highlight of Heaven—more glorious than you’ve ever pictured; no one ever wants to leave his presence, and the good news is you don’t have to in Heaven!
What sparked your interest in near-death experiences?
John Burke: When my dad was dying of cancer, a friend gave him Life After Life, the first book on near-death experiences. I picked it up off his nightstand and read it in one night. I was not a Christ-follower, but after reading it, I was shocked. I said, “Jesus, you are real—I want to be with you when I die.” It was that compelling. The next year, I was invited into a Bible study where I understood God’s grace and started following Christ. For 35 years, I’ve studied the Bible (in seminary and out), and I’ve read about 1,000 near-death experiences. I don’t advocate forming your view of Heaven from individual NDEs because each one is an interpretation, and our view should come from Scripture. But I found that NDE commonalities corroborate with one another and with what the Bible says in compelling, vivid, colorful ways that help you imagine Heaven and want to live all-out for it.
Of the thousands of NDEs you’ve studied, what elements do most have in common?
John Burke: In Imagine Heaven, I discuss the 12 commonalities that many NDEs share, like being aware of a new spiritual body—still with arms, legs, fingers, and toes, but with intensely heightened senses experienced in a new dimension of time and space. People recognize each other, communicate in perfect heart to heart understanding, and experience a deeper unconditional love than they can put into earthly words. People commonly meet a man of brilliant light who radiates to them a love they never want to leave—those who know Him know he’s Jesus. And many have a Life Review in the presence of God where they relive every action, thought, and motive, and experience how it affected others. The main message they get is the centrality of love, and it changes many of them forever!
Some studies estimate 1-in-25 have had NDEs. How do you know these stories are real and why do you believe they’re occurring more often?
John Burke: Modern medical resuscitation keeps improving, so millions of people who have been clinically dead, for minutes to hours, are being brought back to life. I devote a chapter to show why many skeptical doctors have been persuaded that these NDEs are real. NDErs report details of their resuscitations that they could not have witnessed or heard while in their physical bodies. Hundreds of studies conclude the most logical explanation of what they report is that consciousness survives bodily death. While I am still skeptical of any one story alone, so many NDEs say similar things that it’s very important for Christians to understand them in light of the Scriptures.
As a pastor, do you have a hard time believing some of the NDEs you’ve come across? Why do you think Christians are often skeptical of NDE stories?
John Burke: I’m skeptical of individual stories, and yes, some I have a hard time believing. I don’t advocate building your understanding of Heaven based on individual accounts, but rather looking first to Scripture, then seeing where many common experiences corroborate and align with Scripture. That’s why I include so many Scriptures illustrated with 120 stories in the book—stories that could be replaced with many more saying similar things. When you read enough NDEs, you see how much people struggle to put their multidimensional experience into three-dimensional terms. That means every person is interpreting their experience, and many who are not Christian interpret them in ways that don’t gybe with Scripture. I think that’s why many Christians are skeptical, but if you look at the common experience described rather than interpreted, it’s amazingly biblical.
What does the Bible say about what we can expect in Heaven?
John Burke: Heaven will be abundant life like we always knew it should be—unconditional love that makes us feel forever at home. It’ll be way more “earthy” than imagined—the Bible describes tall mountains, valleys, palm trees, rivers, beauty like that of earth, yet exploding with vibrant new colors that come from the very light of God (remember, he lights up everything according to Revelation). Heaven will be a glorious reunion with friends and family in Christ, where Jesus said we’ll eat and drink like at an elaborate wedding feast!
But that’s just the beginning; we’ll have projects to do, music to compose, work to do but without the frustrations or deadlines of Earth. All of it will reflect God’s glory. We’ll have property, valuables, animals to care for (Isaiah and John said animals will be there too), some people will rule cities or nations, all will have unique work to do that brings us great enjoyment and God great joy. I could go on and on, but you’ll have to read the book to see everything—but this is what the Bible says!
What can NDEs teach us about Heaven that the Bible can’t?
John Burke: Nothing important. But having said that, most Christians don’t live like Heaven is a treasure worth selling everything to purchase—because we can’t imagine just how wonderful it’ll be. While NDEs are not needed to add content to what the Bible teaches, they do add color to the Bible’s picture of Heaven. For instance, Revelation tells us there’s no Sun for God is the light of Heaven. We could probably infer that the color spectrum of God’s light far exceeds that of our Sun, but when you hear many NDErs describe the vivid, dazzling colors—a sensory explosion more captivating than the northern lights—and you hear multiple blind people who could “see” the light of God coming out of everything and radiating inexpressible love—you see the compelling nature of Heaven.
What about hellish NDEs? How prevalent are they and do you believe there’s any truth to them?
John Burke: Very few who research NDEs even address that an estimated 23% of those who report having an NDE had a hellish or distressing experience. Given the fact that people are hesitant to report heavenly experiences, for fear of being labeled “crazy,” I think it’s safe to say hellish experiences are underreported as well. In Imagine Heaven, I spend a chapter reconciling these hellish experiences with the Scriptures. Because none of these experiences are irreversible death (many reported a boundary, and they all came back), I don’t think one’s NDE experience is always a good predictor of their final destination, but I do think these experiences are just as real as the good ones. In the book, I wrestle with the troubling questions these hellish experiences raise.
What other common questions about Heaven do you answer in your book?
John Burke: I grapple with just about every question most people have about Heaven, including “Will I be myself and recognize others?” “What will we do forever?” “What will it look like?” “Will my pets be there?” “Who goes and who doesn’t and how can I know my final destination?”
What do you hope people will learn from reading your book?
John Burke: I hope people with faith will see how beautiful and glorious Jesus is, how wonderful the world to come will be, and like the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11, I hope they will live courageously for what lasts. I hope those without faith will learn from this book that God is real, and Heaven is real. I pray many will be compelled by his great love and grace to give their lives to him.
Bio: John Burke is the author of No Perfect People Allowed, Soul Revolution, and Unshockable Love. The founder with his wife, Kathy, of Gateway Church in Austin, Texas, John is also the president of Gateway Leadership Initiative (GLI) (@gatewayleaders), a nonprofit organization. As an international speaker, John has addressed hundreds of thousands of people in twenty countries on topics of leadership and spiritual growth. He and his family live in Austin, Texas.